The Market of Khalem
While a student refugee in Khalem, I discover the market by chance. It is the heart of the city—not the palace, not the high-end shopping streets, not the historical museum—the market is the heart of Khalem’s people and their food. Thick lentil soups cook in old brass vats under perpetually dirty awnings; flatbreads glide through the air as they bake upon overhead oven belts. There’s yelling and bargaining and stories and arguments; I thought I was fluent in the language of Khalem, but it turns out I’m only fluent in the smooth, dry speech of the university. The voice of the market fills me up like warm bread dipped in oil.
The honey seller lets me sample spoonfuls of honey: buckwheat, dark and viscous; the golden quince blossom; pear. Have you gone to the sidewise market yet? he says. My brother has a stall there.
Sideways, sidewise—I am not sure I understand the word. He gestures over his back. Right there. I cannot see anything. Just a wall.
The Sidewise Market
I do not have money to come back in daylight. At dusk, a copper coin buys me a grab bag of slightly overheated vegetables the merchants do not want to lug home. I come after closing hours.
When they start bombing the market, I stop going. But I need to eat, and I need to breathe the air of the sweet decay of the night, the winding stone streets squeezing in the stalls; the star-full sky veiled by the city’s breath.
I return again and again. In the newspapers: the familiar stalls of dry beans and fruit in their burlap sacks are gone; the honey seller’s face, stilled forever. I am hungry, increasingly hungry; the dormitory rent is raised because of the war. My stipend remains the same. Then it is reduced.
In despair, I apply to study abroad in Islingar. They will not want me, but I have to do something. The application fees to two universities eat up my stipend; I cannot apply to more.
One evening, I fall into the sidewise market by accident. Too hungry to think much or notice where I’m going, I take a wrong turn; pass under a stone arch I have not noticed before. The other side is not much different, except it is quieter, as if the night itself holds its breath. In the velvet folds of darkness, I smell vegetables ripe with the day’s heat, almost falling into decay; slops and garbage and urine; above, the old fabrics of the tents rustle softly, their dirt swallowed by the night. A lone lantern sways above the only open stall. It is a simple, rickety construction, a tray of worn wood under the awning whose histories had been smoothed and devoured. On the tray are onions, each globe perfect and golden, shining with some inner light.
I sway on my feet; I have not eaten since the morning’s single egg; in my hand, the crinkly bag of bargain vegetables makes a desperate noise. The owner of the onion stall has not moved all this time. He is a person behind the light. I am afraid of large men. But he smiles. There is nothing predatory in it. He is not after my vulnerability, my aloneness; he is not after anything. He is the jeweler of the market of shadows, when all the sirens are resting and all the people have left. He is the inheritor of crevasses into which gold has spilled and stilled, the magic of the fissures of the world. So am I, I think, and wonder if it’s true.
I shuffle on my feet, and slops and refuse squelch under the only shoes I own. He says something. Perhaps something as simple as, would you like to buy some onions? Perhaps he says something else. I am a golden king of loss, and leaving me you will forever hunger for my jewelmaking craft, visible only in the warmest hour of darkness.
Where are you from? he says. I understand this much.
Raiga, I whisper. I do not much remember it. Cold, and big men threatening my father. Later, people standing in a long line, three streets long. A serpent of people dressed all in gray, their heads bowed under the stone heaviness of the air. We are trying to leave Raiga. My father holding my hand. We must obtain documents. But I can’t, we can’t. Islingar is not receiving; you are out of quota. I remember people slipping money to Islingar’s representatives. My father’s twitching hand. He does not have enough to give, to be counted in the quota of refugees allowed to flee Raiga’s wars on a ship to Islingar. My father’s face is ashen with defeat, like a curtain falling. He does not speak when the two of us walk back home. There isn’t much home left. Three more months, and then gone.
Raiga, the onion jeweler says, and his smile brings me back to the sheltering darkness of the sidewise market. Did you want to come to Khalem?
I shake my head. No, Islingar. But they did not want us.
He does not say, I’m sorry about the war. How can we be sorry about a war that is not of our making? I’m sorry you had to come from one war to another, from your war to ours, but he does not say it; perhaps he does not even think it. I am not afraid. I should be, I think, but he does not mean me harm.
Do they have onions there? he asks.
In Raiga? Yes, they do... I’ve eaten onions since I was little. Onions split in half and roasted in a cast iron skillet. Onions cut into rings and battered in millet flour. Onions diced and browned to sweetness, then mixed into buckwheat kasha. I have not eaten since the morning’s single egg. I do not eat much, now. I have no money; only the market and its darkness feed me, when I can come here at all; when the trolleys are running, when the sirens are silent. A bag of leftover vegetables for one copper coin—vegetables teetering on the tender, sweet edge of rot.
Do they have onions like these in Raiga? he says. The warmth of his voice neither pulls me closer nor pushes me away.
No, not like these.
Never like these, he echoes. I make them out of this city. Like that piece of jewelry described in ancient books: Khalem of Gold. Nobody knows what it looked like, not even people who work at the historical museum—but I will tell you this: Khalem of Gold is an onion; each onion contains the city, and is reflected in it. They glow and are shaped by my carving hand, and so that the city can never be destroyed or forgotten.
His fingers wrap around an onion. He lifts it to the lantern’s lone light, and in the onion, I suddenly see: the goldwork towers and walls of the Old City; the broken bridge, jagged after a recent bombing yet still shining; rows of humble houses etched in ebullient metal; the curve and sway of the historical museum.
Would you like an onion?
I shuffle from foot to foot. I do not know how to tell him I spent all my money so I could eat something, and I will have to walk forty minutes to my dormitory.
Free, he says. I’m sorry about the war.
I reach out my hand, and he drops the city into it. It feels warm in my palm. I lose sight of the jeweled detail; my eyes see nothing but onion skin, layers and layers of it, brownish-orange and curling up, and underneath it, golden.
I do not remember how I make it back to the dormitory. I walk, the onion in my right hand, the bag of vegetables in the other. It is a long walk in darkness, but I am safe in the glow, or I simply do not remember.
My good knife was stolen a week ago. In the communal kitchen, I cut the vegetables into jagged pieces with a blunt table knife. I am so hungry that my hands are shaking; a stray motion of the knife grazes my finger. I cut—more tear apart—the bell peppers, the zucchini, and the eggplants; throw them with some oil into the pot. It is a deep blue pot. My father gave it to me. A good pot for many things, he said; you can make soup or kasha or even braise fish. But what I have are these vegetables, soft and spotted but still releasing an aroma of secrets and warm stone. The clove of garlic from the bargain bag has begun to rot. I scrape the bad bits off.
It is more than I’ve eaten in days, since I last dared go to the market. I steal a pinch of turmeric and a few peppercorns from the neighbor; it feels only fair after my knife disappeared, and it is night, and nobody will see me. Darkness has been my first line of defense for as long as I can remember.
The vegetables sizzle and sag, reminding me of another life—a summer in Raiga, when my grandmother made sinenkie i belenkie—each piece of aubergine and summer squash perfectly cut with an unstolen knife. But mine is better. The vegetables smell of gratitude and secrets, of the sidewise market and words spoken in the dark.
I have not cut the magic onion from the stall. I look at it while the vegetables cook. Khalem of Gold. The onion does not come with chains, but I think about them now, chains glimpsed only from afar, from a ship, that one time before we landed—the chains of Khalem, upon which the city is balanced. This city, unlike any other, uncomfortable with its own weight and with the war; a city that must always and forever be balanced.
I spoon warm vegetables into my mouth straight out of the pot, swaying in the bare dormitory kitchen with its grayish floor tiles and a single forlorn ceiling light. We have almost been discarded, these vegetables and I, blemished and sagging and rich with the promise of rot.
I stand over the pot and eat. There is no point in leaving anything; it will be stolen. I eat until my stomach hurts. I eat until I’ve scraped every last bit from the pot, eaten everything except the onion.
I take the onion with me to my room, curl around it in bed. I do not know when I will eat again.
On board the departing ship, I see the whole of Khalem clearly the first time. It is a carven globe of gold floating in the sky, tethered to the ground with ancient linked chains. The city shines in the evening’s gloom—the humble houses and the arc of the museum’s roof, and the palace, and the cratered bridge, the black pockmarks of recent bombings stark upon gold. One of the chains has been recently severed and repaired in modern fashion, clumsily, quickly, piling rough metal over the ruin of gold.
It begins to rain. The sheen of water softens the dark evening sky to a deep layered blue. The sea is shivering; wave after wave rocks the ship, but I am allowed to stay on the deck, grasping the railing with hands gone numb in the cold.
Ten years ago, when my family fled Raiga to Khalem on a similar ship, we were herded into a single windowless room belowdecks. We were not prisoners, but neither were we free to leave—a mercy of Khalem, who took us in when Islingar refused us. We found out later that people had died in Khalem, and the government needed more people to balance the weight of the city on its chains. It wasn’t about offering us refuge, not directly. They had a need—the city needed to be balanced with our bodies.
But now, leaving Khalem and its glow, seeing it clearly for the first time, I grieve—for all I have seen and have not, for all the doors in the market that I could not open, doors that led to tiny eateries serving dumplings in fragrant green sauce and fried chicken hearts; and how I would smell them and look at the people—older, dressed simply, their faces wrinkled from work—dreaming that one day I would be like them, I would open a door and walk in, coins in my pocket, and order a millet flatbread with tart yoghurt sauce and a tiny glass of tea, and be full.
In my bag, the onion rests, safely wrapped in tissue-thin paper, together with my acceptance letter from one of Islingar’s top universities. Impressed by your record—but I have excelled out of desperation to get the merit stipend and eat. The student papers to Islingar, too, are conditional. Conditional on my continuing unwavering excellence, my perfection, which will be judged and tested every year. The new university paid for my ticket, too: room and board in third class, with a possibility of a discounted upgrade, but I could not afford that.
I become at once queasy and elated from the motions of the ship, the salt spray in my face like a lattice of diamonds; all the stars of the night. The carved globe of Khalem recedes into the rain.
I had a choice
Belowdecks in third class, I see the same windowless room and wonder if I am on the same ship that brought me from Raiga to Khalem a decade ago. I do not remember much. The smell of despair. Somebody’s grandmother sitting very still on a cot. She was translucent, taking as little space as possible; her eyes glazed with memories of two wars. Children crying. Somewhere, in the distance, a light.
I shake the memory away. On this ship, people are pressed together, but it does not feel as desperate. Children are crying here too, but grandmothers do not; I see an old woman stirring a soup in a pot. She looks so ordinary, her back stooped, her hair gathered and bound in a garish flowering kerchief, that I almost call out to her in the language of Raiga. She turns, and the greeting is swallowed on my mouth. She looks from under a forest of brows. Her eyes are sunken and dark. She is not translucent—rooted into the planks of the ship like a stubborn ancient tree. Her lips leaf through daughter, son, and settle on child.
Child, she says in the language of Khalem. Child, what about the onion?
I am clutching it, always clutching it in my pocket. The streets and gates and towers. Khalem of gold. She looks at it through the fabric. Looks at me, and suddenly I am afraid, and fear snakes like a wet wind around my torso.
I don’t know what you mean, I lie.
Oh you know, child. There is a magic onion stall in the sidewise market of Khalem, where every globe is burnished and mellow like the city that was taken away from me, for even though I weigh more than you do, they cast my people out and let your people in to balance the chains of Khalem.
She stirs the soup in its pot: it is verdant and vivid, herbs and secrets ground first between her palms until their scent opens, then lowered gently into the simmering water. She has shaped millet-flour dumplings and set them adrift in the broth. The ladle with which she stirs is carved, and for a moment I wonder if my eyes betray me. Its handle is golden—an open-jawed lion—and the ladle itself is made of old dark wood. She does not cook this soup for the crowd that presses and sighs belowdecks. This is a memory that twists my stomach and makes me sway on my feet.
A magic onion stall, she says, that once belonged to my family and now belongs to yours, once belonged to my father and now belongs to yours...
Nothing belongs to my family. My voice is bitter. My father owns nothing. He is very ill. He gave me his pot, but it was stolen in the dormitories before I left. He gave me his knife, but that was stolen even earlier. When my father fell ill, we could not afford to treat him. He told me to leave Khalem while I still could.
She sways and stirs the green soup with her princely ladle, her wizened hand gripping the lion by the waist. You had a choice. A choice to stay or leave, she says.
Yes, that is true. I left Raiga with my family, but now I am older and alone. I could have stayed in Khalem, I guess.
I collect a dry meal from the opposite side of the room. The sea rations taste of nothing and smell like third class, warm and smoky and sad.
The sea is gray and sputtering, and I can no longer see land. Fog has risen over Khalem, and the far-off Raiga can only be imagined, a rough outline of loss.
I try to remember it. Pine forests, drops of amber sap at my feet. It is always cold. Big men are threatening my father. Standing in line; it is three streets long, made out of people dressed in gray, their heads bowed under the heaviness of the air. My father’s hand is big and reassuring, but I wonder if he is afraid. We must obtain documents. But Islingar isn’t receiving.
On the ship bound for Islingar now, I check and recheck my documents. These are not refugee invitations. Mine are student documents with not much weight or rights, but my fingers touch my pocket over and over. I’ve wrapped the permission to enter in waxed paper, put it in my right pocket, sewed it shut. My hand keeps touching, tracking the crinkly outline of the packet, caressing it over the fabric. My fingers worry at the seams. Each evening I finger the stitching open and check, then stitch it shut again. My left pocket holds the onion.
The grandmother is still there, in the third class common room by the stove. It is an electric stove, white and battered, but I do not see it connect to anything. Why is there a stove here, if the food is dry rations? I did not think about it before.
She stands in the same way, her stooped back to me. The ladle has transformed: its handle is a silvery seahorse with enameled eyes and the wood is mahogany. She is cooking a thick lentil stew in the manner of the markets of Khalem, spiced with turmeric and cardamom and leaves of amber. I am not hungry, for a change; my stomach is full of dry pieces of bread from the rations; but the smell of the lentil soup stirs me. I’d eat it forever. I’d ladle it with the ladle with the silver seahorse and the lion of gold. I’d scoop it with my bare hands and be burned.
I am Nayra, she says without turning.
I take too long to respond. I have had many names, but none of them fit.
She gives up. Give me the onion, and I’ll feed you.
Nayra stirs and stirs her pot, on the hot stove that does not connect to anything.
She says, Twenty years ago the streets of Khalem were crowded with stalls. Every rounded fruit and root and vegetable had a carver, adorning the produce that grows on the slopes of Khalem. They were jewelers of everyday, for all they often argued. What did not sell was diced and stirred in burnished bronze pots, and then cooked low and slow while the cooler air spread its blessed breath over the tired city, the sellers swapping tales and ladling soup under the bejeweled net of the stars.
And the onion stall belonged to your family? I ask.
Nayra turns to me, and her eyes are golden like story, like childhood. One of the onion jewelers was my father, she says. There were many more. I no longer remember.
I, too, don’t remember much—not of Raiga, not even of Khalem. There is the ship, the semi-dark glowing closeness of it, and abovedecks, the fog and he wind.
Give the onion to me, Nayra says. You don’t need it. But I do.
Abovedecks at night
I find a spot on the open deck from which to watch the sea. Nobody bothers me here. Not much can be seen in the darkness, but I listen to the incessant language of the waves. Above me, the stars dive in and out of clouds. In the depths of the sea I imagine its life—giant fish, red and gold and almost as round as an onion.
I take my onion out, cradle it in my hands. It has not begun to soften or rot. It shines like it shone in the dark sideways market. Its jeweled ridges feel soothing under my fingers—the streets and markets and homes of Khalem. My fingers trace the past of Nayra’s story: stalls that line the streets, people selling all manner of things that are round and bejeweled—onions, figs, the purplish globe artichokes; oranges, not needing to be carved or otherwise adorned, for their skin has drunk from the sun.
My onion is glowing golden between my palms; I am occupied by its secrets. Only later, lying awake on my berth and trying to fall asleep, I wonder if I have heard, from a distance, a sigh coming up from the bottomless sea.
Night after night
Night after night I climb up to the deck and let my onion shine. In calmer weather, I hear the sigh from the sea, more pronounced now, and sometimes a shadow, as if of wings, rising and falling like a breath cradled and diffused by the wave. On stormier nights I hear nothing, and the deck hands send me below.
I have eaten my fill every day. I am not used to this—to eating this much, to eating so much dry bread, to not having anything stolen.
The shadow ray
It is raining. The night sky adorns itself in the sideways stitching of rain. The deck hands are sheltering elsewhere. I take out my onion—a familiar gesture by now—and raise it to my chest. My palms cradle the houses and streets of Khalem as its light ventures forth, golden and warm like a beacon.
Out of the sea, triangular wings rise, darker than the onion-gilt wave. Flitting between the ship and the water. It is a sea animal, a ray. It traverses the boundary space between the ship and the sea, the boundary space which is softened by spray and the sideways stitching of rain. Our eyes meet; it is human; human like me and like Nayra, and I do not know why I think this.
What is your name? I shout to the shadow in the sea. It sprays me with water, or maybe it is the ship’s sudden movement, lurching away, and then it is gone.
The Maid of Murur
Later that night, lying on my berth, I count breath after breath to a hundred, but sleep does not come. I count the number of berths in this corner of third class, I count the people fast asleep, the wooden beams above my head. I count the knots on the beams and their patterns, I count the wet sound of steps coming closer and closer.
I stop counting and turn to see a pale-blue hand draw back the curtain. There are three more people asleep nearby, but the stranger is quiet; only the water trickling down their breast and hip makes a sound, like a sigh.
I am called the Maid of Murur. Her naked skin is pale blue, like the wave. She holds her ray skin neatly folded across the elbow. And you?
I am.... I am.... I turn my eyes away. I can tell you what I am called in my documents?
What would you like to be called? Her voice shivers. I sit on my berth and pat the place next to me, push the blanket towards her.
My mouth opens. Belezal. I have not expected this, never imagined that name could be mine. It is a Khalem name, the name of the great mythic artisan who fashioned the first bejeweled globe of Khalem out of gold; before everyone took up this form, before onions and figs and artichokes were carved to resemble his craft. It is said that his golden coffin hangs from the central chain of Khalem and balances it with its weight.
Are you a man?
I shake my head. Neither this or that, you know. I heard I can be whatever I want in Islingar.
My father wouldn’t understand. The thought pains me, that I kept it a secret from him for so long, that he’d think I was hurt in the war, that he failed to protect me. But I lost his knife and his pot, and that pains me much more than losing the name he had given me.
I stare at the small puddles on the floor, uncertain when the ray-person slipped away.
Hunger of a different kind
In the third-class commons, the rations-people mock me when I ask for more. The words are almost soft at first, but after a few days it intensifies; they call me a growing boy and a vulture of dry bread and they laugh with their I’ve-always-eaten-my-fill mouths. Nayra nods at me from the other side of the room. Her tireless arm stirs the pot.
You’re hungry again, she says when I make it over. She is cooking onions today—onions sliced into thin rings and cooked translucent and golden with turmeric and cardamom. As I stand there transfixed, my mouth watering, she grimaces. It’s not the same. The onions that grow on this ship taste like water. Not like the ocean even, for that is full of salt and life. The water of the ship is sanitary and still, and it bloats these onions, steals any life and taste from within. What you smell is the spice.
They grow onions here? It is hard for me to imagine, but she nods.
Even deeper within the bowels of the ship there are gardens tended by those of us who will never land.
Nayra stirs the pot, a familiar motion by now. Today the handle of her ladle is a bird made of silver, its feet transformed into chains wrapped around the wood of the spoon.
No matter how much spice I add, it will never taste like Khalem.
Nayra’s gaze slides over my bulging pocket. I wait for her to ask again, but the only sound she makes is the stirring, stirring, stirring the simple pot on the stove which is not connected to anything.
You said that you will never land?
She sighs. Not now. Not ever, perhaps.
Islingar is not receiving?
Oh, I have the documents, Nayra says. Documents for Islingar, a land where onions soak up even more water, a land that is tasteless and smells like nothing I know. No, child, I want to go back to Khalem.
Belowdecks on my berth, I eat everything in the ration packet, but I am not full. I want to eat all the dry bread that scrapes the insides of my mouth and slides down my throat like a gravelly lump. I want to devour Nayra’s onions, their bloated, watery taste softened by spice. I want to taste the ocean, drink the brine and the seaweed until we are safe on dry land. No matter how much I eat there is an emptiness in me, the weight of Khalem that can never be balanced by chains.
Words of Murur
I climb abovedecks that night. It is windy, and the ship lurches; but I have become stealthier. I hide from the deck hands, my clothing blown this way and that by the wind. I am huddled in dreary cold wrappings against the gusts of water and wind. When I take out the onion, I doubt anyone will see me. Not the maid of Murur; not the ship hands, not even the stars in the overcast, punishing sky. Not even Nayra. You do not need the onion, she said. My father was among the last onion jewelers of Khalem. Every rounded fruit and vegetable had a carver, adorning the pliant flesh with the slopes and streets of Khalem, adorning the graveyards and markets and chains that hold it aloft. You do not need it, but I do.
I should have told her, my father, too, used to carve—with his paper-thin knife made from my grandfather’s razor, and with his big carver’s tools. There is no natural magic remaining in Raiga, but the artists make it out of the fallen forests, out of memory. Out of wood they shape birds and streets and houses, carve protections and lions into the corner beams. But he found no wood in Khalem. It is a city of gold and chain, of stone and carved onion. When my father sickened—
The maid of Murur is here. She sits heavily on the wet wooden boards by my side. Her naked human skin is glowing blue; her slippery ray-skin folded once more over her arm.
Your onion glows like a beacon.
I do not need it, I say.
Not even to call me out of the turbulent sea?
Maybe. To call you. I smile despite myself. Why are you at sea?
Because Raiga is at war.
I know very little about Murur. A small country neighboring Raiga from southeast, for centuries swallowed and spat out by Raiga’s conflicts.
Murur was pretty once. She shakes her head, and droplets of water fall on my hands from her seaweed-braided dark hair. Pretty before all the wars. Now everything is rigid—the clothes, the words, the people. They do not want someone like me, and I’d rather be in the ocean than anywhere with my family. Her voice goes mocking, shrill with pain. You say you can love a person of any shape—then why can’t you marry a boy?
The way she says the word ‘boy’ makes me clench inside. She asked if I was a boy, but I am neither this nor that, at least not yet.
She looks at me, worried. Clasps my hand. I do not mean you. They would not want you, just like they do not want me.
Her hand on mine is warm and wet, and my feelings churn like the storm. At least she told her family who she was. I did not tell my parents, when I left. I was hungry and alone, and it did not seem possible to have that conversation in Khalem. I just hoped to be free in Islingar.
I say, You can be whatever you want in Islingar.
I do not have the documents. I am not even alive anymore, not in a way you are alive, Belezal. I do not even have a human name. I traded all that for the ray-skin. I did all that to be free.
She no longer has a human name; but my name—my name!—my name on her lips is like gold and salt water. The name Belezal is Khalem’s heavy chain weighted with the shores that I wanted to reach all my life, as warm as a carved golden onion.
It is cold here, I whisper. Are you not cold?
A little. She scuttles closer to me, and I put my shaking arm around her shoulders.
It is cold here, I say again. My lips, too, are like ice. Soon we will wrap a single ray-skin around us and plunge into the sea. But I do not want to go there. I mumble, Would you like to come down—to my berth?
She does, and we do, and we drape her ray-skin over the berth’s opening so that nobody can look.
The pot of empty water
You smell like the sea, Nayra says. Like seaweed. It’s morning, and I’ve wandered over to her stove again after the rations-people refused me any extras. Back in the berth, my lover ate the last of my dried bread—stale and too salty, still better than sea snails and worms. Then she left. I am hungry again, hungry always and as long as I can remember.
Nayra gives me a knowing look. Ah, youth.
I look away. She cannot come ashore with me.
Nayra’s wrinkled hand stirs a pot of empty water. The ladle is plain wood with no adornment, its handle worn thin by decades of work.
I nod. No documents. Where we come from, they do not want people like us.
But they wanted you in Khalem. And my father—my father—Nayra’s voice runs thin and bitter. Runs out.
My father, too, was a carver. I have thought of this moment, practiced the words, but I cannot quite say them now. My father—in Raiga he was a carver of wood; he could have carved ships if he lived closer to the coast. But the ships of Khalem are hammered out of sheet brass; they cannot venture far into the open sea.
This ship, Nayra says, was made before Raiga and Islingar, made in the great isle of Selei before it sunk underwave, made when Khalem as we know it was only beginning, when Belezal forged the streets and the chains.
That’s my name. Belezal. A name made real last night on the lips of the shapeshifting ray of Murur.
A weighty name to carry, Nayra says. A legacy of chains. She is silent for a moment. We were exiled from the city, my father and I, so your people could balance the weight of Khalem.
She is bitter, but I stay by her side. I want to say, I had nothing to eat there. We barely survived. My father is very ill, and even the knife he gave me was stolen. In Khalem, I could not be who I am.
I do not say these words. They will not help.
I love the city, too. I do not say this either. I did not love it when I came and left.
I say, I do not understand why the city needs to be balanced with our bodies. Our weight.
Because it hangs in the balance.
Nayra relents and releases a small pouch that hangs around her neck; warms the spices before crushing them into the boiling water. They float, dissolving in that heat. She stirs the empty soup as I watch, and she ladles it—hot water, just water from the secret bowels of the ship, first sanitary-still and then vibrant, alive with Nayra’s spices.
I take a sip, and it is the city: its markets and birds and crowded streets— For the briefest moment, I see it as it was in peaceful times. The jewelers of fruit and root and vegetable in their festive embroidered robes under aprons, and my father—my people—carving birds and reindeer into housebeams made of stone and wood; and small-statured people I have never seen carving jewels out of spice berries. All around are shouts and argument and song; good-natured cries and little brass-bells calling the market to dinner. Even the honey-seller is there, with his wax candles carved like the onion, carved like the city. I swallow, and it goes away.
Who are the jewelers of spice? I ask, and Nayra nods.
These people are called Khidi. They say they founded Khalem. It was their city before it was hung suspended in the air, before the weight of the world was balanced in it.
You do not believe it?
I do not know. She shrugs. The city is always changing.
I am sorry, I say. I am sorry for everything. My father’s sickness, the war that spat us out of Raiga and into Khalem, the tumult and din of Khalem, the churning of the sea and this ancient ship that traveled it before our countries were real, before Belezal spun the chains of Khalem. I’m sorry we can come together only in memory shared with a spoonful of empty soup. I’m sorry my lover won’t come ashore with me. I’m sorry I took a name too large for me to carry. I’m sorry that I am and am not a boy.
I tell Nayra, I’m sorry you cannot go home. I cannot, either. I do not know where it is.
The maid of Murur comes back in the night, when I am asleep in my berth. I blurt, you do not need the onion to find me.
I don’t, she says. But it is good to have the light.
Her lips latch to mine, and the sea of her swallows me.
I bring the onion to Nayra the next day, proffer it in both my hands as I would give her the city. The strongest light.
I do not need it, I say, but you do.
She turns towards me. Away from the stove. The ladle is poised in her hand. It is ebony, crowned in a golden bulb of an onion. Did she hold it before I spoke? I don’t know.
What made you change your mind?
I swallow. I don’t know.
My lips move, soundless. The onion jeweler gave me a gift; he did not need to give it. I can choose to give, too.
And, I am no longer sure this is mine.
And, You have been on this ship for decades. You cannot return to Khalem.
This is Khalem.
Aloud I say, I did not know you before.
The ladle shakes in Nayra’s hand. She kept asking me for the onion, but now I know that she did not think I would give her anything.
What about your lover?
I shrug, pretending indifference. She can find her own way to me.
Are you absolutely sure? But Nayra is already stretching out her hand.
I let the golden globe go. It is a gift, this Khalem of Gold, a gift I did not have to receive, or to give. But I did, and I am, because each jeweled onion contains the city and is reflected in it, and each carver carves the city and gifts it to those who need to remember it and pass it on for others. We may not understand Khalem and its chains and its weight, but we can remember it, so the city can never be destroyed.
Nayra lays down her ladle and takes up a paring knife. With slightly shaking hands she peels the city—its golden skin and the streets and its bridges and the curve of the royal palace. Memory sloughs off, revealing the white flesh inside. Her motions are sure now. She carves that up too, the onion beneath the skin, the meat and heart of the city, its hidden mechanical core—now only, and ever, an onion. My eyes blur. The smell in my nostrils is sharp and triumphant for a brief, bright moment.
I hear the rings fall onto the hot oil of Nayra’s pan. My eyes are closed now, but I hear them. They sizzle at first. Then they hiss. Then they sigh as they sag. They are gentle and soft and translucent, caramelizing to brown.
Into the softness I think, war has damaged Khalem. It is not the city of your youth. But Nayra’s eyes are closed. She is inhaling: the soft, yielding flesh is releasing the sun.
She says, Do you have that dry bread? I have eaten it all, but I manage to beg a few more pieces off a new rations-person. Nayra softens the bread with some oil and fries it, then heaps golden onion on top. Cuts it in half. She eats like a bird, in small pecks, her eyes closed and her whole body rigid, attuned to some inner vision. A trickle of tears runs down from the corner of her right eye; her left is dry.
I watch for a bit, and then I have to look away. There’s the uneaten piece, heaped high with translucent brown onion. No longer my onion, the shining carved Khalem of gold. No, this is disemboweled. Dead.
As if I never received it as gift from the jeweler at his stall, as if it never gave me the strength to leave, as if I never made of it a beacon for the sea, as if it never held the city and its streets and memories and light.
Just a cooked vegetable.
I take a step back. Another.
Nayra opens an eye. That’s for you, she says. The second half. You should eat it.
I turn away and run, all the way to my berth and the dark.
At night I am on the deck. The weather is still and pleasant, and hosts of stars litter the sky. I stare out into the sea, but there’s nothing. Not even a shadow of wings.
The next night I cup my hands like an onion and lift them, empty, to my chest. I have not gone to see Nayra. I have not eaten.
The sea is still.
A storm in the smallest space
The maid of Murur comes to my berth in the dead of the night. The ray-skin in her hand is dripping salt.
What happened, Belezal? Where is your beacon?
I shake my head. I gave it away. I shouldn’t have, but—maybe I should have? The moment was clear and translucent like an onion gently softened by heat for a brief moment before wilting.
You gave it away? The maid of Murur’s voice is thin, sharp.
I thought—I thought somebody else needed it more. Someone who cannot go home.
I, too, cannot go home. I thought—I thought you cared? Her lips tremble; her hair is seaweed trembling like a forest in the small space of my berth.
Nobody cares about me, she says. My family, caring only for the shape they gave me, the order they imposed on me, the people who wanted the body but did not see me—the friends who turned away—the summons of war—the bitter embrace of the sea—
And all the boys you did not want. I do not know what made me say that, and I do. Because she, too, would not see me unless I made clear that I’m not a boy, or at least neither this nor that.
She rises, wrapping herself tight in the slithery ray-skin, and I know I will lose her, and I do not want to lose her, and I have to lose her; I do not understand how this happened so fast.
It’s not about you being a boy, Belezal. You should have asked me first about the onion—you should have asked me first about everything— Her voice is like a storm on the sea, carrying all the weight and anguish of water.
I want to hug her to me, but I can’t. No, I say. I shouldn’t have asked you about the onion. It does not belong to you, or to me. It belongs to Khalem.
I listen to the rapid beating of footsteps, then a splash, far away. In my hectic dreams later, an enormous shadow ray encircles the ship, and tightens; then lets go.
A day before landing, I go to speak to Nayra once more.
I’m sorry about your lover, she says when I tell her.
I shake my head. She did not want me. Not everything I am.
Don’t be so sure about that, Nayra says. In her hand, the ladle is all silver vines creeping up to a blossoming rose. Sometimes it takes more time and more words than youth can afford. You have to exchange many words; they will lead you deep into each other’s truths. You are not born with all the perfect words, especially if where you’re born the words were not allowed. You need to make the words. Words and memories and food and touch. You have to be patient.
I shrug. I cannot be patient now. She is gone. And then, bitter, She just wanted the onion.
Nayra smiles. I have never seen her smile before: like a tired window cracking open into a seascape of purest azure.
No, child. It is I who wanted the onion. She only wanted your light.
The words sink into me, glowing and golden; too painful to hold.
I change course. You have the documents. Come ashore with me to Islingar.
I cannot. She shakes her head. Even though I cannot return, I must stay true to Khalem.
I say, I lived in Khalem for a decade, but I did not truly know it before I met you. Did not love it before we spoke. You’ll carry Khalem with you ashore. Its spices and markets and truths. And its love.
Nayra shakes her head. Then she pats mine. Not yet.
In Islingar I settle in the seashore town of Luga, home of the university. Excelling is easier now that they give me a stipend to cover my lodgings and food. I eat the tasteless fruits of Islingar, great slabs of bread cut thin and toasted to dryness.
I sit with my books by the window overlooking the sea. I nibble on dry bread and daydream of a great ancient ship made of wood and barnacle-covered; made in the isle of Selei before it sunk underwave, made when Belezal forged the streets and the chains of Khalem. In my vision the ship is enormous, larger than water and land. As it grows in my vision I hear, deep within it, the sound of Nayra’s ladle making circles in the pot of soup.
I buy a blue pot and put empty water to boil on my electric stove. It is plugged in, and the low humming of it comforts me. I buy overpriced sumac and coriander, turmeric and cumin, and I stir the empty soup with a ladle made of wood. The spices here are not as potent as Nayra’s; they hardly taste of anything. I add more and stir, always keeping an eye on the horizon. There is no ship I see, and no gigantic ray.
I begin to add lentils and vegetables to the pot. The zucchini and onions are waterlogged here, barely tasting of earth, but I can afford them.
In time, I buy larger clothing and marvel at how easy it is both to find and to buy these sizes. When strangers ask me where I’m from, I say Khalem.
They were jewelers of everyday
My father sends me a package over the sea. It is his own carving knife, thin and sharp, made from my grandfather’s shaving razor. My father cannot hold it anymore, much less carve.
The package tarried for three months before reaching Islingar. There is no letter—confiscated in customs, perhaps. The binding is torn and the back address smudged, but the knife arrives safe in its wrappings, still holding a razor-sharp edge.
It takes me four days to find a good onion. The store onions of Islingar have no luster, but a middle-aged woman sells me a good one from a communal garden patch. It looks slightly tarnished and does not quite glow, but it smells like the dark and golden streets of Khalem’s sidewise market.
When I sit by the window to carve the onion, my hands shake. I lost the first knife in the dormitories, but the knife I hold is dearer even. Why did my father send it? Because he thought me his son, even though I said nothing; to inherit his knife and my grandfather’s, or because he thought I should inherit them as a daughter? What was I? Neither this nor that, a person who was brought to Khalem and left it, a person always looking back to the sea? Did it truly matter why my father sent me the knife? It is of Raigan make. I hold it, the handle warm with my touch and older than my life, older than all the wars I have known. It has traveled from Raiga to Khalem and then out of Khalem oversea, like I did.
I carve—hesitantly at first, then with abandon. I am a carver in the lineage of Khalem but I am also a stranger to it. A stranger everywhere. I carve as my father would carve—birds and reindeer and trees; I carve as Nayra’s father would carve—streets too wide, imprecise, the bulbous roofs of Khalem’s inner quarters, the curve and sweep of the museum. I carve things of my own: a harbor, much like this one in Luga, which cannot be found in Khalem. A ship, which neither of our fathers have seen. And then I am out of onion.
My creation is dull and clumsy, uneven. The images I saw so vividly in my mind are shapeless gouges and slashes. If the maid of Murur only wanted my light then what I made is crude and feeble; it cannot compare to the great work of the carvers of Khalem or to my father’s craft. It cannot call anyone out of the sea. It cannot do anything.
A summons and a wave
When I sense her presence by my side, I think I am dreaming. But the maid of Murur is real, her blue skin glowing with pinpricks of light. Her ray-skin has transformed into a studded leather coat. She wears a white men’s collared shirt beneath it, and a pair of sharply pleated trousers, in the latest fashions of Islingar.
Did I call you?
You did. She smiles, and her mouth is lit by a row of small, sharp, white teeth. And I decided to be called.
I want to reach out to her, touch her tide-starry hand, but I cannot, not yet. The depth of words that Nayra spoke about is missing.
I tell her, I need to be—I need to be what I am, even if it’s a boy. I am neither—or both—and one day I may be entirely a boy, or not, but I cannot—I cannot have you tell me I’m special and different from other boys, so if you cannot have a boy, it will not work.
She puts her hand on mine, soft and heavy, breaching the boundary between wakefulness and dream. I’m sorry I said that. Thing is—it’s not about you or any other person, boy or not. It is because—of what they wanted me to be. I’m good with a boy and a girl and a person who is both or neither, a person of any shape, as long as they do not want me to change who I am.
Why would I want to change you? I blurt. You are perfect.
Her hair shadows my face, runs down my body in star-drops of water and light. Words, Nayra said, words to get to the deep still core of ourselves; but we touch and words scamper while our waves crush relentlessly, gently ashore.
A chain of words and soft onion
We talk in the night. How she came to the ship after I disembarked, her ray-skin draped over her arm and dripping tears in the third-class commons; how Nayra gave her my half of the old piece of bread and leftover onion. How she ate it, the ancient city and all its heart and its wars, its kindness and cruelty and its sacrifices.
A piece of Khalem is in her now as it is in me, a memory golden and sharp like a chain that balances both of us.
It is easier to find the right words now that I’ve lived for a while in Islingar, my lover says. I have even picked up my name again. Gabi. She waves her fist fiercely towards the sea and beyond it, Murur. They do not get to take it away from me, not anymore.
But I am here only provisionally. Even if I’m excellent in my studies, I cannot stay here forever.
I do not ask Gabi how she got her documents.
A morning in Luga
In the morning, she is still here, sprawled asleep in my bed. The onion I carved flickers on the kitchen table, barely there, but she found me. All what is needed is my light.
I slice up my clumsily carved onion into a pan with some oil and soften it gently with sumac and cumin. The jewelers of everyday in Khalem carved their unsold produce each night and cooked it for a big communal meal; tomorrow I will find another onion and practice until I am truly a carver.
Nobody’s watching, but I look around anyway, before unplugging my stove from the electrical outlet in the wall.
There is no change. The stove hums gently, the warmth of the heating element cooks the onion base. I add lentils and rice and water and set it all to a gentle simmer. My ladle is wood, but as I look, it sprouts a handle of silver. It is a chain. A chain of Khalem holding tight to a ship that forever travels between all the shores, a ship more ancient than wars, a ship that saves us and drowns us, a ship that traversed the waves a thousand times for those of us that do not have a place to go, so we must always be going places.
I know that one day we will see it again, my lover and I; see the ancient barnacled ship fill our vision and expand. We will run down to the harbor, Gabi in her jacket of ray skin and I in my big Islingar clothes. We will hold hands and run breathless beyond the customs tower, race barefoot to the pier. The air will be too bright and too green, full of smells of dry seaweed and wind.
We will climb the rusted, ancient chains of the ship, go down to third-class where the stove hums as softly as mine and an old woman of Khalem stands motionless by a big pot of water. We will ask our elder to come ashore with us, or maybe we’ll tell her we are ready to come on the ship once more. We might never be allowed to enter Khalem again, might never find home, but we’ll balance the weight of each other.
I will not stop carving until it is so.